Maybe because it was starting to feel less like a home than a dollhouse, it had become our de facto office, and when we’d finished work that day, we’d relocated to Gus’s.
He was in the kitchen, getting more ice, and I took the opportunity to peruse (snoop through) his bookshelves as thoroughly as I’d wanted to ever since the night I moved in and saw them lit up through my living room window. He had quite the collection, classics and contemporary alike. Toni Morrison, Gabriel García Márquez, William Faulkner, George Saunders, Margaret Atwood, Roxane Gay. For the most part he’d arranged them in alphabetical order, but he obviously hadn’t kept up on shelving new purchases for a while, and these sat in stacks in front of and on top of other books, the receipts still poking out from under their covers.
I crouched to get a better look at the bottom row on the shelf furthest from the door, which was entirely out of order, and audibly gasped at the sight of a thin spine reading GREGORY L. WARNER HIGH SCHOOL.
I opened the yearbook and flipped to the E surnames. A laugh burst out of me as my eyes fell on the black-and-white shot of a shaggy-haired Gus standing with one foot on either side of a dilapidated set of train tracks. “Oh my God. Thank you. Thank you, Lord.”
“Oh, come on,” Gus said as he stepped back into the room. “Is nothing sacred to you, January?” He set the ice bucket on the sideboard and tried to pry the book from my hands.
“I’m not done with this,” I protested, pulling it back. “In fact, I doubt I’ll ever be done with this. I want this to be the first thing I see when I wake up and the last thing I look at before I go to bed.”
“Okay, pervert, stick to your underwear catalogues.” He tried again to pluck it from my hands, but I turned away and clutched it to my chest, forcing him to reach around me on either side.
“You can take my life,” I yelped, dodging his hands, “you can take my freedom, but you’ll never take this goddamn yearbook from me, Gus.”
“I would much rather just have the yearbook,” he said, lunging for it again. He caught either side of the book, his arms wrapped around me, but still I didn’t release it.
“I was not kidding. This is too bright a light to hide under a bushel or a lampshade. The New York Times needs to see this. GQ needs to see this. You need to submit this to Forbes’s sexiest men contest for consideration.”
“And again, I’m seventeen in that picture,” he said. “Please stop objectifying child-me.”
“I would’ve been obsessed with you,” I told him. “You literally look like you bought that outfit in a packaged Teen Rebel costume from a Halloween shop. Wow, it’s true what they say. Some things really don’t ever change. I swear you’re wearing the exact same outfit today as you are in that picture.”
“That is one hundred percent untrue,” he argued, still pressed up against my back, his arms folded around me to rest on the book. I’d managed to keep the page marked with my finger, and as I opened the book again, his grip relaxed. He leaned over my shoulder to get a better look, his hands scraping down my arms to rest on my hips.
As if for balance. As if to keep from falling over my shoulder.
How many times could we possibly end up in situations like this? And how long until I lost what little self-control I’d managed to maintain?
As soon as something concrete happened between us, that would be it. I was going to lose him. He’d be freaked out, afraid that I was too into him, wanted too much from him, that he was bound to destroy me. And meanwhile I’d be … too into him, bound to be destroyed.
I was too much of a romantic for anything to stay casual, and even if we were totally incompatible, I was already in deeper with Gus than a purely physical attraction.
And it seemed like neither of us could stop pushing the boundaries.
As we stared at the yearbook, or pretended to, his hands ran lightly back and forth along my hips, pulling me into him then pushing me away, in a terribly appropriate metaphor. I could feel the tightness of his stomach against my back, and I chose to focus on his photo instead.
My initial giddiness faded, and the picture struck me anew. Probably 30 percent of the boys in my own high school yearbook had gone for the same angsty look, but Gus’s was different. The crooked line of his mouth was tense and unsmiling. The white scar that bisected his top lip was darker, fresher, and his eyes were ringed with tired circles. Even if Gus was constantly surprising me in small ways, there was also an instinctual level at which I felt I knew him, recognized him. At book club, Gus had known that something had changed me, and looking at this photo, I knew something had happened to him not long before the picture was taken.
“Was this after your mom …” I trailed off, unable to get the words out.
Gus’s chin nodded against my shoulder. “She died when I was a sophomore. That’s my senior photo.”
“I thought you dropped out,” I said, and he nodded again.
“My dad’s brother was a groundskeeper at this huge cemetery. I knew he was going to hire me full-time the second I was eighteen—insurance and everything—but my friend Markham insisted we take the photo and submit it anyway.”
“Thank you, Markham,” I whispered, trying to keep things light, despite the sadness welling in my chest. I wondered if my eyes looked like that now, so lost and empty, if after Dad’s funeral my face had been this hollowed out. “I wish I’d known you,” I said helplessly. I couldn’t have changed anything, but I could have been there. I could have loved him.
My dad might’ve been a liar, a philanderer, and a traveling businessman, but I didn’t have a single memory of feeling truly alone as a kid. My parents were always there, and home was always my safe place.
NO WONDER I’D seemed like a fairy princess to Gus, skipping through life with my glittery shoes and deep trust in the universe, my insistence that anyone could be who they wanted, have what they wanted. It made me ache, not being able to go back and see him clearly, be more patient. I should’ve seen the loneliness of Gus Everett. I should’ve stopped telling myself a story and actually looked around at the world.
His hands kept moving. I realized I was moving with them, like he was a wave I was rocking with. Whenever he pulled me toward him, I found myself pressing back against him, arching to feel him against me. His hands slid down to my legs, curled into my skin, and I did everything I could to keep my breathing even.
We were playing a game: how far can we go without admitting we’ve gone?
“I had a thought,” he said.
“Really?” I teased, though my voice was still thick with a half dozen conflicting emotions. “Do you want me to grab the video camera to document?”
Gus’s hands tightened against me, and I leaned back against him. “Hilarious,” he said flatly. “As I was saying, I had an idea, but it affects our research.”
Ah. Research. The reminder that we still had to couch whatever this was in the terms of our deal. That, ultimately, this still was some kind of game.
“Okay, what’s up?” I turned to him, and his hands skidded across my skin as I shifted, but he didn’t let go.
“Well.” He grimaced. “I told Pete and Maggie I’d go to their Fourth of July, but that’s on Friday.”